The dogmas of formal education

It is a topic that has been debated heatedly over the last 10 years. Formal education. Is it of any use? There have been many examples that exemplify both the ends. There have been people like D.Ritchie a Harvard graduate, and Bill G, who dropped out, but went on the become the richest man in the world.

I for one, have observed that formal education in 9 cases out of 10, transforms the lives of people. It is my belief therefore, that formal education is necessary. But the fact is, Initially, I found it very hard to apply whatever I learnt at college to the job at hand. But slowly, I began to realize, that it is what I took out of my schooling, that made it impossible to use what I have learnt.

In my high school, education was a very simple equation. X number of lines you remember, your marks increase by a factor of X. X number of formulas you remember, X number of problems you can solve and again your marks increase by a factor of X. X number of problems on linear equations you practice, your mark increases by a factor of X.

This approach made college very difficult for me. I still remember the first C programming exam that I took. The problem was a simple one, something that had to do with finding the minimum of three alphabets which are the keys to three columns in a 2-d array and print out the columns in corresponding order. I sat there mortified. It did not make sense. I knew the algorithm to find minimum of a list perfectly well. It was there in my observation notebook. Eh?

It just did not strike me, that the problem at hand was the same problem back in my observation notebook. This is the greatest shortcoming of my formal education. I just did not pay attention to the one thing that will be of help to me. I did not pay attention to mathematics.

Lest, I give the reader a very wrong idea, given a problem from the mathematics text book, I knew how to arrive at the solution by applying a bunch of formulas. My entire attention was on the procedure to arrive at a solution. It made the most sense to me because, 1) this was what the teacher focused on and 2) the procedure and the solutions were the one that was going to fetch me marks. But procedure and solution are of very little use in real world when you are trying to solve a problem, just because of the fact that, you do not know the procedure.

What I failed to notice was the order and method through which the procedure was created. It is all to easy to remember the derivation of E=mc^2. But this does not make anyone Einstein. There is analysis that goes into coming up with an algorithm. No one can sit and think about how to solve a problem and solve it. One must analyse the input, figure out its nature, its properties, its relation to other known concepts, its relation to the output. Only then, It is my belief, that one can see the way.

But this is what a mathematics text book always specifies. They mention the input, its relation etc, and you just apply the formulas. But in real world, no one is going to write down, the properties of the input. No one is going to specify the fact that the input is a fibonocci sequence. No one is going to write down the input as a nice and clean linear equation. No one is going to give the input in a nice and neat linked list and ask me to find the middle element. I have to figure that out for myself. That is where analysis comes in, and there should be order and method when I analyse a problem.

Time and again, I have caught myself jumping to the next step in the solution without taking time to analyze what I have in hand. It is just the way I have trained myself to look at problems, and It is my first goal to unlearn this and start analyzing the variables at hand. Towards this end, I have started watching the mit open courseware on algorithms, this time around to pay attention to the techniques that the professor uses to analyse the problem, instead of the end solution. Formal education is not a waste. I  just have to pay attention to the more worthwhile subjects.

Quote for the day,

Projects don’t succeed by jeemboomba magic” – Dr.Nadarajan


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